We live in a world of unlimited access, and the potential to be “present” with multiple events simultaneously. You can watch a live feed of a friend’s new baby while at your daughter’s soccer practice, and still manage to send out a few work emails somewhere in the midst. With technology comes the ability to complete a multitude of tasks simultaneously. But what about what’s right in front of you?
All these distractions and attempts at multitasking have had me thinking about its implications. Is multitasking actually efficient? And is all the technology that claims to help us become more efficient really true? My brain went into overdrive after reading Time Magazine’s special edition, Mindfulness: The New Science of Health and Happiness. What I’ve concluded is this: Multitasking combined with work and social demands have stolen our ability to focus on the ordinary moments of our lives. In contrast, if we could focus on one thing at a time, and took time to relax and recover, we may be less anxious, less stressed, and possibly happier.
And that’s where mindfulness comes in. Call it what you want, but mindfulness is about focusing on what’s directly in front of us.
Mary Elizabeth Williams describes it perfectly: “It’s about putting down our juggling balls for a little bit. It’s about embracing the beauty of monotasking.”
I have yet to hear someone say they are trying to work on their monotasking skills rather than trying to accomplish more in a moment than is humanly possible.
The Physical and Psychological Effects of Stress
There are numerous clinical studies focused on the effects of stress and anxiety. It’s easy to say that we live in a culture that demands doing more, whether at home, work, or even church. This leads to multitasking, trying to get many things done at once. To understand the importance of monotasking, it’s good to know what stress is doing to our physical and mental health.
The Oxford Dictionary defines stress as, “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.” Sound familiar? Stress often goes hand in hand with feeling anxious, or “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome.” Our bodies are designed to withstand and respond to stressful and anxiety-producing situations. The brain releases adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine to respond to a stressful situation. This causes increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and heightened awareness/attention. After the event is over, the body slows down and recovers.
Prolonged stress is another story. When the body does not have time to recover or is in a constant flight-or-fight mode, the amygdala is in continual overdrive. Over a prolonged period of time, these chemicals can wear down our brain, heart, and muscles while lowering our immune systems. Chronic stress can also lead to ailments and disease, including:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Type 2 Diabetes
It’s safe to say prolonged stress and trying to accomplish too much is wreaking havoc on our bodies and lives. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, puts it this way: “People are feeling a little desperation. It used to be you left work and went home. Now you’ve got your devices that follow you everywhere. The body is designed to be energetic and active and then recover. People don’t have any recovery time– there’s been this silent, invisible ratcheting up of invasion of our space. [The result is] everyone’s multitasking like crazy- and the more you do it, the worse you get at it.”
In contrast to prolonged stress, there are natural remedies to allow the body to recover from daily stresses. No, this doesn’t mean shipping out your children, or quitting your job. Recovery does not necessarily need to include medication either. Enter the art of mindfulness.
I first began learning about mindfulness in graduate school as a coping tool for anxiety. In order to use it with my counseling clients, I had to first try it out myself. I was won over. There wasn’t a list of required equipment, no cost, and very little time was involved. All I needed was a space to rest and pay attention to me and the space around me.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a mindfulness author and instructor, explains mindfulness as, “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.” Paying attention is key to mindfulness.
“You do not entertain any thoughts at all, whether recalling the past or thinking about the future. Simply rest in the present moment of awareness, fresh, and uncontrived. Without any kind of examining or analyzing whatsoever, the mind dwells, tranquil and at peace.” – His Holiness the Dalai Lama (2004)
And that’s all there is to it. Have a seat in a comfortable chair, or lay down. Close your eyes, and just take time to notice the parts of your body, how relaxed you feel, where tension lies. Listen to the subtle sounds around you, the smells in the air, the way the ground or chair feels against your body. Start with trying it out for one minute. Over time, try noticing your thoughts that float in and out, without attaching or thinking about them. I think of this as pausing, and almost stepping out of your body to observe it. Then gradually increase the amount of time when you feel ready. Again, start with one minute, and grow from there.
Health Benefits of De-Stressing & Mindfulness
Allowing our bodies to recover from daily stressors is important, and can actually help you be more productive in the long run. Mindfulness and meditation can be easy, free ways to help reduce stress and help your body return to a calm state. In this state of recovery, we can then give ourselves and loved ones the gift of undivided attention. We can focus on the simple tasks and events in our lives without being preoccupied by a million thoughts and buzzing technologies.
Philosopher Simone Weil observed, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
Aside from attaining the simplicity of monotasking, there are other benefits to de-stressing daily:
- Reduced anxiety and depression symptoms
- Reduced ruminating and intrusive thoughts
- Decreases panic attacks
- Significant stress reduction and reduction of cortisol
- Increased working memory
- Increased ability to focus
- Increased productivity
- Increased ability to fall asleep and stay asleep
- Less emotional reactivity
- Lowered blood pressure
As I read over this list, it sounds crazy. If I focus on one task at a time, if I allow my body to recover from stress daily, I can be more productive and feel less stress. It seems counterintuitive compared to how we live our daily lives.
Mindfulness Tips and Activities
If you’re willing to engage in this journey of rest and relaxation, here are some easy ways to begin. I previously mentioned how I teach mindfulness to beginners. But that’s not the only way to help reduce stress.
My other go to is coloring. While working with trauma clients in residential treatment, coloring was the easiest way to help clients break repetitive and intrusive thoughts. It helped them learn to acknowledge fears and anxiety without fixating on it. These days, coloring is my go-to to unwind. Some days I color for only a few minutes before bed, while other days I can’t put down the colored pencils. No matter the time frame, I’ve noticed real differences in my stress levels as a result of coloring.
Other mindfulness and stress-reducing tips include:
- Sit with both feet on the ground and take 5 slow, deep breaths. This can help ground and stabilize anxiety when feeling overwhelmed. And it can be done anywhere!
- Try to limit the multitasking. Focus on one task at a time when possible.
- Listen to Scripture or Worship music while coloring, or simply laying on the couch or bed. The focused attention will help divert your thoughts from stressors and aids in disconnecting from work and obligations.
- Focus on what’s right going on in front of you, and ignore your phone.
- Blow bubbles. That’s right, buy a bottle of bubbles, and blow some bubbles. This helps with breathing and calming down from a flight-or-fight state.
- Try guided imagery exercises.
- Listen to music. Or put on your favorite tunes and dance around the house! Allowing yourself to be spontaneous can be exhilarating and reduce cortisol levels.
- Go on a short walk, or sit outside for 5 minutes. Take in the sights, smells, and sounds of your neighborhood. Try to identify 2-3 things for each of the 5 senses.
- Say no to extra commitments that hinder you from attending to yourself.
- Acknowledge how you feel, even the hard emotions like anger and sadness. Being able to acknowledge and accept our emotions is a great way to learn to accept ourselves.
- Choose to leave work at home, even if only 1-2 nights a week.
- Treat yourself to a special dessert or savory treat. And then sit and focus on enjoying that treat, engaging all 5 senses.
I can keep going with ideas, but hopefully you’ve started thinking of your own. Unfortunately, we can’t quit our jobs or run away to a deserted island to reduce our stress levels. We can, however, learn how to focus on our lives and help our bodies recover from said stressors. It doesn’t need to take a long time, or require a lot of money. Try spending 2-5 minutes a day checking in with yourself, and doing a mindfulness exercise. And begin learning how to embrace monotasking and the beauty of life that’s all around you.
Monique is a mental health therapist in the Southern California area. She has experience in addiction, trauma, and co-occuring disorders. She loves to write and learn new techniques to help clients find relief from PTSD, depression, and anxiety symptoms.